Scenes from the Capitol’s busy, noisy, close-talking comeback

Ready or not, Congress is reopening

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calls on reporters during a news conference following the Senate Democrats policy luncheon in the Capitol on Tuesday — the first such event in a while.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calls on reporters during a news conference following the Senate Democrats policy luncheon in the Capitol on Tuesday — the first such event in a while. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 15, 2021 at 5:20pm

There was a feeding frenzy in the shallow depths of the Senate basement Tuesday, as the small subway cars offloaded senators into dense packs of reporters. It was a sight, once so common as to be unremarkable, that disappeared suddenly some 15 months ago.

“Hey man, what’s up?” one reporter shouted to another as he walked back from another scrum, head buried in his phone.

“Everything,” was his curt reply.

The coronavirus pandemic is over, at least in the Capitol complex. An estimated 85 percent of lawmakers, staff, reporters and other employees who work there have been vaccinated, leading the House to lift its mask mandate starting this week, as representatives returned to Washington after a long three weeks away.

Things have been slowly picking up this month. With the House floor quiet, the Senate was the main game in town. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its mask requirements in May, cheeks and chins came out around the Senate again, though some were slow at first to doff the facial safety blankets they’ve relied on to get them through the last 15 months, and the hallways still felt more empty than full.

That all changed this week. A scrum 17 reporters thick greeted Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon as he stepped off the subway from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, crowding around to hear the Democrat repeat his insistence that any infrastructure spending deal has to include a hefty amount dedicated to fighting climate change.  

Across the way, past a few dozen other chit-chatting and tweeting journalists, two CQ Roll Call reporters met for the first time.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you! You’re housing, right?” asked Jessica Wehrman.

“Health care,” replied Ariel Cohen. “It’s strange, I’ve been here half a year and I barely know the office.”

“Such a weird time to start a job,” Wehrman agreed.

Down the subterranean hallway and under the Russell Senate Office Building, a lunch line formed at the newly reopened Cups coffee shop. As around 15 staffers queued up to place their sandwich orders, another 25 waited with varying degrees of patience for their food. At tables, interns once again asked staffers barely a few years older than them for career guidance — Should I take time off before grad school? Maybe go to law school instead? 

Upstairs, back in the Capitol proper, even larger crowds gathered outside of the weekly Senate caucus lunches. Dozens of journalists huddled around a lectern placed for a pair of postprandial news conferences from the two parties’ leadership.  

“It’s nice to be with all of you,” began Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer with a grin. “And when I say ‘all of you,’ I mean it.”

Like the framework for a potential infrastructure bill, that sentiment was bipartisan. “Well, it’s nice to see you all back here, when we’re able to do these things back in the Capitol again,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune.

Inside the Capitol’s bowels, life had returned to a boisterous, busy, touchy, close-talking normal. But outside the absences remained. There were no throngs of tourists, no groups of schoolchildren under the harried eyes of a few chaperones, no flocks of fly-in lobbyists readying to encircle their local representatives. In their stead were new fences placed not to fend off a foreign-born virus but a domestic threat — mobs of self-proclaimed patriots who attempted on Jan. 6 to subvert the Constitution and ignore the democratic will of their fellow citizens.

So, while inside the Capitol was a scene of noisy joyful renewal and reunion, outside was unnaturally serene. It was peaceful, like a cemetery.